Hey there! It’s James, and I’m so excited to announce that today’s guest is the legendary Jason Reynolds. He’s the award-winning, bestselling author who’s released several books each of the past couple years, including the Track series, Miles Morales: Spiderman, and All-American Boys. At this year's LA Times Festival Of Books, Jason gave an exceptional talk about his book Long Way Down and I’m so excited that Jason has agreed to continue that conversation here at #BeyondTheBio. If you haven’t read it yet, Long Way Down’s the story of a boy who must decide whether or not to avenge his brother’s death. It’s a definite must-read, and I’m so excited that Jason could join us today to talk about it. Let’s get to it!
Hi Jason! Thanks so much for joining us for another round of #BeyondTheBio. I recently had the privilege of hearing you speak about your award-winning, bestselling book Long Way Down and I'm so excited to continue that conversation here today. The entire book takes place in an elevator. Can you tell me a little bit about the symbolism behind that decision?
Talking about this book is tricky only because everything I say about is stripping away some of the beauty of the reading experience. It's a book that requires close examination and thought and I'm just always careful about letting readers off the hook. BUT...the elevator is basically the physical manifestation of the human psyche in moments of pain or trauma. Closed, cold, tight, vertigo inducing, slow moving, and hanging by a thread.
Gun violence is a popular topic now, but a lot of those conversations ignore the fact that black and brown men are its biggest victims. How do you hope that your book will help shape the conversation about gun violence?
I actually think there are lots of conversations around gun violence already being had, and the easy answer is the one we've already been addressing. How do we keep guns out of kids’ hands? How do we teach healthy decision making? Things like that. But when it comes to black and brown communities, we aren't asking enough questions about anger. These kids aren't killers. They're children. They're afraid. They're in pain. They're confused and pressured. We need to inject the humanity back into the conversation specifically as it pertains to conversation around gang violence and retaliation. This book aims to do that. It's purpose is to say "Young man, you aren't a thug, no matter what people call you. You're a child living in a system that you don't understand, and many people on the outside of said system don't care to understand because it's much easier to write you off. But some of us see you." That's the part of the conversation we're not talking about enough.
It's almost as if we'd rather focus on the laws than on our own human capacity for anger. Anger's a more difficult topic in a lot of ways. Why do you think that is?
Because to discuss anger is to discuss humanity. And to see people as yourself makes it harder to castigate them. To acknowledge anger would mean one must proceed with humility when it comes to judgement.
As you mentioned, your books always seem to push back against the cultural narrative that portrays poor black and brown children as thugs. These children are well-rounded humans, and your stories always portray them as such. Why is that important to you?
Because I am a black man who was a black boy. I wasn't special. I'm still not. Therefore I am the black and brown kids I write about, and can still easily be pushed aside, labeled, feared, misunderstood for no other reason than my truth isn't always as strong as the imaginations of those that don't know me, or as permeating as America's history. So, I feel obligated to put it in a book, trap it in a capsule that can be used as reminders (and weapons) for us, and hopefully as smelling-salts for those that sleep. That sleep is a kind of violence, y'know?
You've mentioned that this story bears some similarities to events that happened in your own life when you were nineteen. Can you talk about that?
Sure. A friend was murdered. And my friends and I were angry enough to contemplate murdering who we thought was the culprit. Revenge. That's really it. His mother begged us not to do it, so we didn't. But that feeling, that anger, the separation from the self I knew, and the introduction to a me I'd never seen...it's something I'll never forget. That level of anger exists in all of us if catalyzed. Part of the human experience.
At each floor, Will is haunted by figures from his past. Are you haunted by anyone?
I'm haunted by everyone. And everything. Good or bad. That's why I became a writer.
You've said before that rap music saved your life. I'd love to hear some more about that.
Simple. Rap music introduced me to poetry at a young age. My life and interests were unavailable at the time, as far as books were concerned. We had wonderful literature, but it didn't necessarily always have the contemporary textures that I needed. Walter Dean Myers was definitely king, but I didn't read him. I didn't read anything, until I started reading rap lyrics. It was so on the nose, so fresh and current that it opened a world of possibility as far as what I found out you could do with not just language, but with colloquial language. With my language. From there, my journey began.
Because you've had so much success over the past few years, I know some people think that you're some sort of overnight success. But you worked ten years in the publishing industry before your first book was published. What did you learn during that time?
Well, there's a correction that has to be made. I worked ten years before my second book was published. I was published early by Harper Collins. A friend of mine collaborated on a book when we were twenty-one, called "My Name is Jason. Mine Too." So I was here. But my timing was bad. Ha! Because the recession hit as the book was coming out, and...that was that. It flopped and I didn't have a shot at taking a second swing. From there it became an uphill battle of trying to figure out what to do next. Life changed, things happened, and ultimately I ended up working retail, teetering on quitting the writing dream. And then Chris Myers, the son of Walter Dean years encouraged me try again. And I did. And here I am. If I learned anything, it's that for some of us—for me—doors are meant to kicked down. But it might not be on the first kick. Gotta strengthen the ankle, the knee, the thigh. And you might not have boots, so you can't be scared of hurting your foot in the process.
You've published multiple books each of the past few years. How does writing so much impact you? What's the cost?
I've laid it all on the line. I don't sleep much. I try to see my mother when I can. I travel non-stop. I suffer from terrible anxiety. I struggle turning it all off, only because there's always the looming fear that when I turn it back on, it'll be gone. Like coming home after taking a vacation and your house has been emptied. But I'm working on it.
And for our last question today, I want to talk about imagination. You've spoken about the modern day crisis of imagination, saying that the constant access to distractions has limited our capacity for curiosity. How do you plug into your sense of imagination and curiosity?
I get out in the world. I let life get into me. Let it wash over me, smack me in the face, push me down the steps, and up the hill. I try to know everything. How and why are my greatest companions. And lastly, I listen. It's impossible to not experience spasms of imagination when you're listening with your whole self.
That’s it for today’s interview with Jason. If you haven’t got a copy yet, you can buy Long Way Down here. You may also be interested in checking out last year's chat with Jason, in which we discussed All-American Boys. See you again next week when Julie Anne will be chatting with Adrianne Finlay about her new sci-fi romance, Your One & Only. See you then!